The Petraeus effect

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Wall Street Journal – REVIEW & OUTLOOK : As General David Petraeus briefs Congress this week on Iraq, it’s clear his surge has achieved remarkable results. The most crucial is that the U.S. can no longer be defeated militarily in Iraq, which could not be said a year ago. The question now is whether Washington will squander these gains by withdrawing so quickly that we could still lose politically. The Wall Street Journal

REVIEW & OUTLOOK

April 8, 2008; Page A20

As General David Petraeus briefs Congress this week on Iraq, it’s clear his surge has achieved remarkable results. The most crucial is that the U.S. can no longer be defeated militarily in Iraq, which could not be said a year ago. The question now is whether Washington will squander these gains by withdrawing so quickly that we could still lose politically.

Sixteen months after President Bush ordered the change in strategy, the surge has earned a place among the most important counteroffensives in U.S. military annals. When it began, al Qaeda dominated large swaths of central Iraq, Baghdad was a killing zone, Sunni and Shiites were heading toward civil war, and the Iraqi government was seen as a failure.

The Washington consensus – as promoted by the James Baker-Lee Hamilton Iraq Study Group – portrayed retreat as the only option. “This war is lost,” declared Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in April, thus telling U.S. soldiers they were risking their lives for nothing. As late as September, Hillary Clinton had the nerve to lecture General Petraeus in a Senate hearing that “the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief.”

Today, al Qaeda has been cleared from all but the northern reaches of Anbar and Diyala Provinces, Iraqis feel safe enough to resume normal lives, Sunni sheikhs are working with coalition forces, and the long process of Sunni-Shiite political reconciliation has begun. The surge seized the offensive from the enemy so rapidly that it deserves to be studied for years as an example of effective counterinsurgency.

Yes, this progress has also required some luck and Iraqi help. Al Qaeda in Iraq overplayed its hand with a brutality that turned the Sunnis against them. Four years of war had made Iraqis tired of violence, and Sunnis began to understand that they couldn’t win a civil war against the Shiites but could use the Americans as leverage to negotiate a better bargain. Some 90,000 Sunnis are now working with the U.S. as part of the “Sons of Iraq” movement.

None of this would have been possible, however, if Iraqis had not seen that the U.S. was committed to protect them. General Petraeus and his chief deputy, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, pursued a strategy that secured the population while going on offense against al Qaeda. U.S. and Iraqi troops moved into neighborhoods and lived among Iraqis, who in turn began to supply valuable intelligence about the terrorists. Faster than even the surge’s architects hoped, the strategy led to far less violence.

While Democrats still claim political progress is possible only if the U.S. leaves Iraq, the surge has proved the opposite. Better security required a larger U.S. presence, which in turn has made Iraqis feel more secure about compromise. The political progress has been especially significant at the local level, with greater cooperation from tribal leaders and local councils, most Sunnis saying they’ll participate in provincial elections this fall, and more oil money flowing to the provinces from Baghdad.

Much remains to be done, of course, and a premature U.S. withdrawal would put these gains at risk. Al Qaeda must still be swept from Mosul and upper Diyala, with the same U.S.-Iraqi troop strategy that worked in Baghdad. Terrorist entry routes West of Mosul from Syria also need to be stopped. And as we’ve learned in the last two weeks, Iraq Security Forces aren’t able by themselves to impose a monopoly of force on Basra and the Shiite South.

Iraqi troops have made progress as a fighting force, but they still require U.S. help for the toughest operations. Though poorly planned, the Basra offensive showed that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is finally willing to fight Shiite gangs. The U.S. media have portrayed the battle mainly as an intra-Shiite feud and thus another example of budding “civil war.” But the fight is also about Iran’s attempts to stir trouble and weaken the Maliki government in favor of Iran’s allies.

The U.S. has been reluctant to help in Basra, which has been British turf as part of the coalition. But the U.S. has a national interest in resisting Iranian influence, and Basra is a crucial front in that effort. As for the Brits, their failure to engage in counterinsurgency has left the Basra vacuum to be filled by Iranian-backed “special groups.” The British made the same strategic mistake that former U.S. Iraq commanders George Casey and John Abizaid made in 2006 in Baghdad. The U.S. will have to deploy one or more brigades to Basra to help the Maliki government assert its control.

* * *

The five U.S. surge brigades are scheduled to return home in July, and one question Congress should ask General Petraeus is whether that pace makes him uneasy. He’s under enormous Pentagon pressure, especially from the Army, to send those troops home. But if, say, three brigades could help solidify the surge’s gains by staying another few months, the General should say so. One of Mr. Bush’s mistakes in this war has been deferring too much to Pentagon brass who have always had one eye on the Iraq exit.

Americans are understandably impatient with the war, but we have sacrificed too much, and made too much progress in the last year, not to finish the task. The surge has prevented a humiliating military defeat, and now is the time to sustain that commitment to achieve a political victory.

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